There but for the
A Novel
Ali Smith
I think we can safely call Ali Smith, in vernacular of the times, a crack-up. After all, who would feature as the hero of a book a man who goes for dinner in a house where he knows practically no one and, in the middle of the meal, heads upstairs, locks himself in the guest room, and doesn't come out for weeks.

He does send out a note (a very short one) not to explain his presence, but to tell the family --- who now suddenly have this unexpected guest --- that he is a vegetarian, so the ham they have been sliding under the door for him is wasted.

The owners of the house complain to the newspapers and the television stations but not to the police. Even so, in an article in the local paper, one of the owners of our new guest tells the readers that she feels

    It is strange having a stranger
    in the house with you all the
    time. It makes you strangely
    self-aware, strange to yourself.
    It is literally like living with
    a mystery. Sometimes I stand
    in the hall and listen to the
    silence ....
    Sometimes I sit outside the door
    behind which "Milo" is sitting
    and just say over and over to myself
    the word: Why? Perhaps in
    some ways metaphorically we
    are all like this man "Milo" --- all of
    us locked in a room in a house
    belonging to strangers.

His real name is Miles but they all call him "Milo," not only his inadvertent hosts but the strangers that begin to camp behind the house to watch the window where he lives. And they start sending him up food, the "one o'clock basket."

Such is the nature of our times that people begin to come from all over to see him, or rather, to view his window. There is not much information about Miles. Only his words with his partner (the real invited guest who soon faded from the scene), along with Milo's brief words during the dinner party ... and his later conversations with Brooke.

§   §   §

Ah, Brooke. She comes to be the center of it all. Miles is the touchstone, but Brooke is the star of the show. And the reader would be hard-pressed not to be enchanted with her too. She's smart, funny, has a great vocabulary, knows when to keep her mouth shut, has all the freshness of a ten-year-old. Which she is.

She's the genius-girl of Greenwich (for that is where all this takes place). The administrators at her school write to her parents, "There is no doubting Brooke's intelligence. Her verbal dexterity is notable and she is wonderfully imaginative and of course we do not have a problem with that or either of these things. But sometimes her infectious imagination can be vertiginous for her peers." Infectious imagination: that's what it is.

For instance ... she starts mulling on living in Greenwich's zero meridian with its huge "Shepherd Galvano-Magnetic Clock" ... which has a 0 at the very top. She thinks,

    It means that sometimes it is actually nothing o'clock. Nothing o'clock! What time is it? It's a quarter past nothing. It's half past nothing. Doctor, Doctor, I think I'm a clock. Well, don't go getting all wound up about it.

Oh the puns ... those ten-year-old puns (remember! And the knock knock jokes, too.)

Sweet Brooke is the glue that holds There but for the together. She turns up everywhere, being the one who sees through all the crap and isn't old enough to think that she has to gossip.

§   §   §

There is a fair amount of shape-shifting here. The name of the hostess of the fatal dinner party is Gen and Jen and Jan. Her husband shape-shifts too: he gets out of the house, and Jan (or Gen or Jen) finds herself sitting outside "Milo's" door, thinking about being a stranger. Miles morphs into the perfect mystery (what the hell is he doing up there?) and the world becomes infatuated with this modern-day Man Who Came to Dinner. At the same time, Brooke morphs from an all-too-intelligent ten-year-old to a philosopher king. For one, she solves the problem of Miles: she knocks on the door and he lets her in. Why? "She was the first person to knock."

In her last, and most beguiling discussion with him, she tells us about becoming a frog. She is obsessed with the martyr St. Alfege who got stuck off in a prison filled with frogs. When asked what the frogs are saying, she replies, "They are talking in their own frog language, about the weather, and how difficult it is to have frog-spawn, and what an interesting experience it is to grow legs when you start off without any, and how nice and damp it is in the cell and how glad they are that they're there, although they are sorry for him, because he is clapped in irons and not a frog like them, and they answer his philosophical questions with their croaking."

And then just to cap it all, after all this wonderful invention, to endear us to her forever, she tells her mother and father about a man who wouldn't stop singing. They told him if he didn't stop they were going to put him in front of a firing squad ... and he wouldn't so they did, and the captain said, as they were preparing to execute him, "you can have one last request." And he said "I'd like to sing a song."

    "Permission granted," the captain said.

    So the man began singing. Nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine green bottles. Hanging on the wall.

We never find out why Miles locked himself in the room and by the end, it makes no difference. The reason that Brooke was the first person to get into the room where Milo was hidden for so long was because she didn't knock, really. No, but she did have a knock knock joke for him. When she arrived, she stood outside his door and said "knock knock."

Instead of saying "Who's there?" he said "Come in."

--- Rachael Saunders, M. A.
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